Why the Living Across the Ancient World Mummified Their Dead

Perhaps the natural world provided inspiration for the most unnatural custom in human history, culminating in deliberate self-mummification while alive

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Uncovering the colorful and beautifully preserved sarcophagus of an artificial mummy, Egypt
Uncovering the colorful and beautifully preserved sarcophagus of an artificial mummy, Saqqara, EgyptCredit: AP

Whatever happened to the Khoi mummy’s pinky? He was the first natural mummy to be found in South Africa, and was missing a fingertip. Discovered in 1999 among tumbleweed leaves in a cave, his excellent preservation was deemed an accident of nature.

Ensuing research tied the Khoi mummy to the San people about 2,000 years ago, based partly on physical stature – and that missing pinky tip. The ancient San were known to ritually sever finger segments, possibly in order to cure disease, or ensure a safe journey after death.

Tutankhamen's mummyCredit: Ben Curtis, AP

His discovery in the modern age evoked mainly curiosity, but if he had been found before the advent of modern science, the Khoi mummy might have provoked very different feelings.

Cultures around the world consider the nature of life and death. One byproduct of delving into these mysteries is artificial mummification, which in contrast to the usual assumption, was not unique to ancient Egypt. In medieval Japan and Tibet, extremist monks even essentially tried to mummify themselves while still alive.

But why would anybody preserve dead bodies in the first place?

Divinely incorruptible

Artificial mummification across the ancient world could plausibly have been inspired by the rare natural phenomenon of bodies that don’t decay.

How can a culture react to the unusual, confusing, and downright macabre? How do you explain finding a dead person who hasn’t decomposed? The common thread behind institutional mummification could well have been bewilderment followed by attempts at replication, which eventually took on societal significance.

Natural mummification could have assumed special importance in early human cultures because of its sheer rarity. Even so, natural mummies have been found from mountaintops in South America to the Sahara and Atacama deserts, to peat bogs in Europe.

St. Bernadette's allegedly incorrupt body on display in Nevers, France.Credit: Jabonsbachek

The earliest natural specimen found to date is the Spirit Cave Mummy from northwest Nevada, dating to about 11,400 years ago. Another famous naturally preserved body is the case of Ötzi, the tattooed middle-aged man who lived 5,300 years ago, it turns out, and whose body was gradually revealed as glaciers melted in the mountains of northern Italy.

The oldest known case of artificial mummification is the Chinchorro Mummies from the Atacama Desert in Chile, which have been dated to 5050 B.C.E. about the same age as natural mummies found in the same desert. The rationale behind the practice, which took a number of forms and was applied to everyone in that society, is long lost.

Head of a Chinchorro mummy., northern ChileCredit: Pablo Trincado

Later, in the west, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology suggested that “miraculously” strangely preserved bodies were “incorruptible saints.” One of the most famous “incorruptible saints” was Bernadette, a shepherdess who died in 1879, at age 35. She was exhumed three times: in 1909, 1919 and in 1923, and remains on display in a reliquary at the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers at the former convent of St. Gildard in Nevers, France.

Another incorruptible with a significant following is Saint Francis Xavier, who died in the year 1553. His body lies in a silver casket at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, India.

Thus, perhaps inspired by these serendipitous cases of preservation, mummification arose in different places around the world, but largely died out in the last thousand years. Yet before it disappeared entirely, adherents of an extremely ascetic religion in Asia took the process to a whole other level: mummification in life.

At the extremes of asceticism

In rural mountains in northwestern Japan, during the Heian period (800 to 1100 C.E.), Shugendo or “mountain asceticism” was established by the mystic En no Ozuno. Their deity was the primordial Buddha, and the goal of its adherents was to purify their bodies and minds through privation, achieving enlightenment upon reaching death.

Unlike Buddhism, Shugendo emphasized abstaining from cereals as a path to become a Buddha “in your own body” as the ideal of self-perfection. According to folklorist Ichiro Hori, that abstention originated with a monk named Kukai, who brought the teachings of esoteric Buddhism to Japan circa 817 C.E. Kukai did not personally become a Shugendo priest (yamabushi) but propounded enlightenment through asceticism, meditation, chanting, and fasting.

Historically, the sect was always small, but Shugendo ritual and observance in the mainstream coincided with increase in the belief of vengeful ghosts of noblemen, who could wreak havoc and cause all manner of misfortunes, even typhoons. Only yamabushi were able to pacify and exorcise them by performing various rituals. The end result was a group of very devout monks seeking to rid the world of vengeful spirits.

Disciplined yamabushi were often believed to have all sorts of supernatural abilities: for example, subsisting on a diet of pine needles could enable one to fly through the air. These priests travelled the country, divining the future and exorcising malevolent spirits while preaching Kukai’s tantra-focused teachings. His philosophies on the path of enlightenment would lead the fanatically devout to commit suicide by self-mummification in the pursuit of nirvana.

One of three Llullaillaco child mummies discovered near the summit of Llullaillaco, a 6,739-meter volcano in the Andes Credit: Pedro Groover

Their suicide involved a purification process that could last from 1,000 to 4,000 days. In that time the ascetic ate things like berries, buckwheat flour, cycad nuts, sesame seeds, tree bark, and pine needles. Towards the end of his life, he would drink tea made from the poisonous sap of the urushi tree, usually used to make lacquer. This concoction would cause the monk to vomit and urinate, further dehydrating his body. This physical castigation was exacerbated by drinking water from hot springs that contained naturally high levels of arsenic, which killed bacteria that could have decomposed his remains.

Extremely weakened and near death, the ascetic monks were buried alive sitting up in an earthen mound. Their only connection to the outside world was a bamboo tube for air and a string attached to a bell which they would ring while chanting sutras, signaling that they were still alive. Eventually, the ringing would stop and the monk would be pronounced dead. Other devotees would remove the tube and seal the mound.

After three years, the monk would be exhumed to see if the ritual to enlightenment had worked. If the corpse did decay, the monks would exorcise his remains and rebury him, respecting his effort but not venerating him.

Mummified Buddhist monk Luang Pho Daeng at Wat Khunaram, Ko Samui: caretakers put on the sunglasses to hide the decomposed eye socketsCredit: Per Meistrup

f there was no decay, this was evidence that the monk had become a living Buddha. His body would then be brought to the temple, ritually honored, wrapped in ceremonial robes, and enthroned for veneration. Their robes are changed every six years in a special ceremony and they are still considered active priests, drawing a salary from the temple.

Self-mummification was operative from about the 1300s to the 1750s, and was also known in Tibet. Reportedly hundreds of attempts were made, but only 24 of these self-made mummies have ever been found. The true number may never be known. In the 1880s Shugendo became frowned upon by Japanese officialdom, and come 1903, suicide was outlawed, which effectively prohibited auto-mummification.

After World War II, Shugendo was revived, but without the most extreme elements, and survives to this day, albeit without suicide.

At the end of the day, mummification may have originated from a shared bafflement at the discovery of naturally preserved dead people, but though it has historically taken different forms, its purpose was ultimately one: to conquer death. Since we know who they are, at least a little, maybe they succeeded.



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